William Ayers: “extreme vandalism”

Walter Shapiro has posted a fine interview with the notorious William Ayers at Salon.com.

Ayers supports Barack Obama’s claim that the two men were merely casual acquaintances, not close friends. But I am more interested in Ayers’s recollection of the Vietnam War era, and the circumstances that drove the Weather Underground to bomb American buildings.

Shapiro:
The New York Times headline on the morning of Sept. 11 was “No Regrets for a Love of Explosives; In a Memoir of Sorts, a War Protester Talks of Life with the Weathermen.”

Ayers:
That headline “No Regrets” was also the headline of the Chicago magazine article a week earlier and it was the headline of several articles. And remember all these interviews were done before 9/11. What I have said continually, and I still say, that while I regret many things (you can’t be 63 years old and not have many, many regrets), what I don’t regret is opposing the war in Vietnam. A murderous, violent, terrorist war against an entire population. I don’t regret resisting that war with every ounce of my being. […]

By 1968, when we really had won the argument about Vietnam, we thought that the war would really come to an end. Especially when [then President] Lyndon Johnson announced that he would step down. […]

What I remember [about the night of Johnson’s announcement] was this great feeling that we had brought about this phenomenal substantive change. And that peace would come. Four days later, King was dead. Two months later Kennedy was dead. And a few months after that, Henry Kissinger emerged with a secret plan to extend the war. And, at that point, the question that pressed itself on us, was how do you end this war?

William Ayers, Bernardine DohrnAyers and his wife, the founder of the Weather Underground, Bernardine Dohrn
Chicago Tribune photo by Chris Walker

Shapiro:
This is where we probably part company. One of the reasons, in my view, that Nixon got away with pursuing the war was that, in part, the violence of the Weather Underground — and some of the other extreme parts of the antiwar movement — discredited the overall antiwar movement. And that led to a further polarization of American life, which led to the first round of demonology involving yourself.

Ayers:
I don’t see it that way. You could be partly right. I don’t know how to make those cause-and-effect relationships. I would posit a different explanation. I think what happened was cynical and thought through and it was deliberate. And I think what happened was that the Nixon administration determined that they could keep the war going without a domestic upheaval that they couldn’t handle. So they stopped bringing dead soldiers home. So they made it an air war and a sea war that was no longer a ground war. So they withdrew troops and they punished Vietnam and pounded it into the ground. When I say it was a war of terror, that is not idle talk. There were entire areas of Vietnam that were designated free fire zones. If you were a pilot and had leftover ordinance, you could just drop it in those villages and they did. So a couple of thousand people every month were dying, innocent people …

It was a crime against humanity on an enormous scale. We were trying to end it. In the six years that the Weather Underground existed, we did everything we could to end it. We never hurt or killed anyone — by design. We didn’t want to. Was it risky, were we a little nuts, were we a little off the track? Yes. Did we cross lines of legality and propriety and common sense? I think we did. On the other hand, I don’t think we were the cause of any kind of reaction. I think we were a small part of an upheaval against war and against killing. […]

In one chapter [of Ayers’s book], I imagine two groups of Americans. One slightly off the tracks and despairing of how to end this war and penetrating the Pentagon and putting a small charge in a bathroom that disables an Air Force computer. An act of extreme vandalism, but hard to call, in my view, terrorism.

Meanwhile, another group of Americans — also despairing, also off the tracks — walks into a Vietnamese village and kills everyone there. Children, women, old men. They kill every living thing, even livestock, and burn the place to the ground.

And the question is, What is terrorism? And what is violence?

Shapiro:
In the book you also state that a phone call was made to the Pentagon a half-hour in advance warning them to evacuate that part of the building. But reading this entire passage — and remembering the era — what baffles me is how could you possibly ever believe that doing things like this would be an effective way to getting what you wanted?

Ayers:
What we thought we were doing was to raise a screaming alarm — to try to wake up anybody who was still sleepwalking to the reality of what was going on in our name. Frankly, I look back at it, and I don’t claim or claim in the book, any particular heroism or status as leaders in any sense. What I do try to point out is that 1968 comes and the war is massively unpopular and our democracy can’t grapple with that. It can’t end the war somehow. And those of us who are committed to ending the war did many, many different things. Some went to Europe and Africa to get away from the madness. Some went to the communes of Vermont and California to start an alternative life. Some went into the factories of the Northeast to organize the workers. My younger brother actually enlisted in the Army and tried to build a serviceman’s union. You talk about nuts. Was that nuts? It was admirable and a little unrealistic. […]

History is always lived looking forward not backward. What are we doing now to end two unpopular wars? Two wars without end. What are we doing? And I would argue that we’re not doing enough, those of us who see the war as illegal, immoral, unwinnable. What are we doing to stop it?

Fascinating. I am opposed to violence, but people always make ethical decisions from within a subjective point of view. From within Ayers’s frame of reference, you can see why he felt justified in resorting to “extreme vandalism”.

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